The Triple-Decker in Gissing’s New Grub Street

As an owner of a kindle, when I’ve downloaded copies of free Victorian novels from Amazon, I’ve noticed that several books are divided into three volumes. I’ve wondered about this–it’s a bit of a nuisance and makes the argument for opting instead for the 99c or 1.99 collected works in one file version. But while I’ve wondered about the three-volume division, I hadn’t made that much of it, and instead filed it away as a curiosity.

But then I read Bernard Bergonzi’s introduction of George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street and discovered that the 3-volume novel or three-decker as it was called seems to have been the bane of many a writer’s existence in late Victorian England. While never “totally dominant” circulating libraries “found this kind of book a profitable commodity.” Apparently, the price of 31s 6d “remained stable for a remarkably long time,” and while there were plenty of other novels in one or two volumes, they were not popular with libraries.The intro also brings up serialization saying that a writer like Dickens “could reach a wide audience through serialization in monthly parts.”

Nevertheless, for several decades the three-decker was pre-eminent, and the circulating libraries maintained pressure on publishers to ensure that most novels came out in that form (since subscribers could only take out one volume at a time, a reader who wanted all three volumes at once had to take out three subscriptions). Publishers in turn put pressure on their authors by offering much higher payment for the three-decker than for novels in one or two volumes.”

So with all this pressure, couldn’t a writer produce 3 volumes at sixty pages each? No the guidelines were quite strict. No cheating allowed: “each volume had to consist of about three hundred pages, with something over twenty lines to the page.” There’s an example given of some poor author who was instructed that a novel “consisted of 920 pages with twenty-one and a half lines on each page and nine and a half words in a line.” What is this, the literary version of Iambic pentameter?

And this brings me back to Edwin Reardon who tries to write the best-seller three-volume book with his wife, Amy tapping her foot and sighing with frustration in the background.Here’s Milvain on the subject of the three-volume system.

A triple-headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelist. One might design an allegorical cartoon for a comic literary paper.

Here’s Reardon’s response:

“For anyone in my position,” said Reardon, “how is it possible to abandon the three volumes? It is a question of payment. An author of moderate repute may live on a yearly three-volume novel–I mean the man who is obliged to sell his book out and out, and who gets from one to two hundred pounds for it. But he would have to produce four one-volume novels to obtain the same income; and I doubt whether he could get so many published within the twelve months. And here comes in the benefit of the libraries; from the commercial point of view the libraries are indispensable. Do you suppose the public would support the present number of novelists if each book had to be purchased? A sudden change to that system would throw three-fourths of the novelists out of work.

Let’s face it; Victorian England or the 21st century, a writer’s life can’t be an easy one. There are no guarantees of sale or success, no pension, no paid holidays, and then we readers can be a fickle bunch. Do writers relate to Reardon fretting over a three-volume novel he hates in order to feed his family and make his wife proud? Is the life of a writer any easier today, over 120 years later? The future of libraries seems questionable, and the publishing industry seems to be undergoing a paradigm shift since e-publishing gained ground. I’d like to think that e-publishing has given authors a little more power over their careers. What do you think?


Filed under Fiction, Gissing George

7 responses to “The Triple-Decker in Gissing’s New Grub Street

  1. Brian Joseph

    I really know almost nothing about the publishing industry. I guess many writers are publishing electronically on their own. I would imagine that this provides authors a bit more freedom.

    The history of the three volume novel is fascinating. It is amazing that with all the artificial rules and constraints placed upon writers then and now, that so many creative and artistic are produced.

  2. Ah, I’d forgotten all about that three-volume discussion Guy, but now I remember that it was one of the places where I became very aware of it. (BTW I often now opt for the cheap paid classics, having had a couple not work – and you sometimes get an intro as well).

    It’s interesting as you imply to think about publishing. There are always challenges around the corner to be met – by publishers, distributors and writers – aren’t there?

  3. Now I didn’t know there was a link between Murakami and Victorian Lit: the Triple-Decker 🙂

    More seriously, I’d never heard of that concept before. How interesting. Do you think that’s why Trollope’s books are so long?
    Newspapers seemed a good way to make an income. A lot of French writers relied on that to be published and earn money and I’m not aware of a triple-decker rule here. (but I didn’t study literature and that’s where education becomes handy)

    I know nothing about the publishing industry either, so I don’t have an answer to your question. In France, electronic books seem to have a hard time. When you’re in a train carriage or in the métro, you never see anyone with a kindle or a kobo or whatever. Libraries are still important and around me, people either borrow books from the library or buy books and lend them to friends and family. With the fixed price of books, paperbacks are rather cheap.

  4. I think Trollope’s books were mostly serialized (which would also explain why they are so long). Since the intro specifically mentioned Dickens being serialized, I’m thinking that authors who were fairly popular in their day were serialized. Trollope’s The American Senator is in 3 V, so that must have been a triple-decker, or a three-decker as it was known back then. Speaking of numbers, he got 1800 pounds for this novel.

    Wikipedia says that around 2/3 of the books published and not serialized came as three v. sets. According to my intro, the triple decker apparently came under assault finally in the mid 90s when libraries stopped ordering them. Publishers had began publishing a cheapo version and that undermined the libraries.

  5. There may be more power nowadays, still when you look at the top e-book sales. Unless you write Fifty Shades of Idiocy you’re still not exactly sure to sell.
    Never heard of this triple decker thing before.

  6. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: National Bookshop Day (Belated) « Whispering Gums

  7. The three volume novel is referenced in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Earnest is found in a handbag (“a handbag!”) alongside “the manuscript of a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality”.

    It’s a play which also includes the following rather wonderful exchange:

    Miss Prism. Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.
    Cecily. Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.
    Miss Prism. The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

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